It is a great and special honor for me to receive the Moses Mendelssohn medal today. Moses Mendelssohn stands for a Judaism-inspired universalism whose ideas I share.
During his lifetime, the integration of a minority in Germany, then the Jews, was already a heated topic of discussion in which Mendelssohn played a major role. One of his contributions to the issue of integration was his translation of parts of the bible into German, a collaboration with the poet Naphtali Wessely. He envisioned a more open, worldly Judaism as a prerequisite to Jewish emancipation, and this openness could only be accomplished through education and tolerance.
Mendelssohn’s involvement in the Haskala movement (the Jewish Enlightenment) led Jewish schools to complement studies of the Talmud and the Torah with subjects such as mathematics, world history, literature, and German.
For Mendelssohn, religion and reason were not contradictions of one another; he saw Judaism as an expression of universal reason, only one of many manifestations of the “religion of reason.” He advocated reforms in his own religion, which earned him the title of “the Jewish Luther,” and as a philosopher and literature critic, he wrote about the works of such diverse thinkers as Spinoza, Locke, Maimonides, Wolff, Homer, Aesop and Rousseau.
In the 18th century, Moses Mendelssohn was concerned about the general welfare of his people. The Jews still lived in the Diaspora and integration and tolerance were survival principles. Today in the 21st century, the Jewish people have their own state and are concerned about their security. Unfortunately, integration and tolerance are no longer on the agenda in Israel today, especially in reference to guaranteeing the security of its people. For 60 years, Israel has attempted to induce a deceptive feeling of security through military force, and for 60 years, every military victory has left Israel morally and politically weakened.
The Middle Eastern conflict is not of a political nature. It is a human conflict between two peoples who are deeply convinced of their right to live on the same piece of land. It is of no use to ask who started this conflict and when. What is useful is to ask who will take the decisive step to end this conflict. In order to secure its own survival, not to mention a healthy future, Israel is obviously the one who must take this step, and the world must help Israel to do so.
I appeal to the powerful nations of the world to conceive of a plan, a kind of Marshall Plan to rebuild the Gaza strip and improve the quality of life of Palestinians in the West Bank. We must not forget that 55% of all Palestinians in the Gaza strip are under 16 years old, and 85% of the population in all Palestinian territories under 33 years old. For this reason education must be an important and organic part of this enterprise. And if I could allow myself one more wish, it would be that Germany would take the lead in this collective initiative not in spite of, but precisely because of its difficult history. In this case Germany must learn to take a different approach to its guilt; Germany’s most valuable contribution would be to help the Jewish people come to terms with the Palestinians. The only solution to the Middle Eastern conflict is mutual acceptance by both parties. This means the end of the Israeli occupation, the dismantling of illegal settlements on Palestinian land, and the end of all violence. It also means that the global community must help all parties within Israel and Palestine to achieve consensus. After that, a dialogue without preconditions must be opened.
We must relearn what Moses Mendelssohn came to understand over 150 years ago: the more one understands and accepts one’s opponent, the more one can accept him and be accepted by him.